Sunday, May 10, 2009


I produced a short verse the other day concerning the noosphere and, based on the reaction to it, I feel a need to say a little more. Here’s the attempt.

The last century produced a veritable rash of bottom-up theories that I studied avidly as a young man but, as time passed, I came gradually to regard them as strangely juvenile—the more so as my juvenile years passed. Since the 1950s, when I encountered these theories, the world has also changed, of course, and not visibly for the better; hence my perception of that change had something to do with my growing doubts about modernity. In this period I also studied cyclic theories of history; that choice was justified; the broad development of events has generally confirmed what I had learned from the historians. At the same time, thus still in the 1950s, I had at least minimum exposure to ancient and medieval philosophical traditions in college. The exposure proved helpful. As my dissatisfactions with modernism grew, I came to value the older thought more and more. You might say that mine’s an average pattern: the rash enthusiasm of youth leads to sober acceptance of wisdom as experience hammers away.

The theories that I’ve found wanting all have their roots in the idea of progress, thus in the notion that change for the better takes place spontaneously over time. It is tempting to classify them as descendants of the evolutionary theory, but their origins predate Darwin and point back to the Enlightenment—indeed the post-Renaissance period. The theory of evolution, certainly in modern form, is itself a product of the same impulse—an impulse that burst on the scene in a politically visible form as the French revolution, an event that capped the eighteenth century.

The best explanation I’ve ever found for vast collective changes of this kind—e.g., the appearance of the idea of progress—I found in the cyclic theories of history. And the reason why such explanations are plausible to me is because they’re grounded in observations of human behavior—thus in conscious agencies—rather than in nature or in matter.

One example of such a theory is the emergence of the noosphere, first proposed by Vladimir Vernadsky, a Russian mineralogist. The picture we’re supposed to form is that of successive spheres, one above the other; thus we have the geosphere, the hydrosphere, the atmosphere. The biosphere developed along the way and came to be inserted, as it were, on top of the rock and into the water. The final sphere is that of mind. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin developed this idea further. He was a paleoanthropologist and simultaneously a Jesuit priest; he wrote about evolution; the Church frowned on his ideas and impeded their publication. What more do you need in the way of a perfect profile for a modern culture hero?

De Chardin’s writings are obscure enough—especially when he diverges from biology—so that you can understand them in more than one way. One is that biological evolution is producing a sphere of mind that, in due time, “at the omega point,” will create a collective consciousness that will be God in the world. Another possible reading is that evolution is producing a collective mind striving toward Omega, that last word a new name for the divinity. In any case we have here a bottom-up theory, the usually advanced modern thing, producing God from matter in a wooly sort of sense—or is it God leaning over as matter rises up? Je ne sais pas.

Close relatives of the noosphere are Jung’s Collective Unconscious, Bergson’s Élan Vital, the Gaia hypothesis, Whitehead’s Process Cosmology—and there are others, to be sure. In popular culture these same ideas enliven or underpin many episodes of Star Trek, to name just one modern series. Behind these newer forms are older versions of the same, including Hegel’s evolving God difficult to distinguish form the state and the closely related dialectical materialism of Marx that returns us to the worker’s paradise. For me the ultimate problem with all of these downside-up theories always turned out to be my inability to detect an agency responsible for such energetic teleological upward striving. I note parenthetically here that the big question isn’t whether or not God exists but whether agency exists. Once we determine agency at any level, God becomes necessary.

Now concerning what I thought was a tongue-in-cheek little verse suggesting that de Chardin had prophetically foreseen the Internet in general and the blogosphere (another sphere?!!) in particular—and that he saw this as the sphere of mind. Well. Yes. This is the hammer of experience beating down. We do have a noosphere now and, with the right instruments, we can even detect it filling the electromagnetic spectrum with invisible waves filled with meaning. But what is that meaning like? It's just the same-old, same-old. Sheer mass, however dense, does not appear magically to transmute the ho-hum into something higher. That this was possible was very clearly an idea de Chardin actually held. He thought that huge masses of matter, piled up on top of each other, would produce what physics calls a singularity (e.g., black hole). That the extremely tiny suddenly exhibits unimaginable properties, such as particle-wave duality—and finally that complexity, if raised to the nth degree, suddenly bursts into mind. Watching the noosphere on CNN I no longer wonder; the tempting melody sounds flat. Or am I just getting old?

Brigitte's Zen Mistress reaction to hearing this post was: "Did you notice that noosphere and blogosphere both have two Os?"

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the fuler explanation of noosphere, most interesting.

    And, in a somewhat indirect way, your following post on time horizons may be seen as related to this one about thoeries of bottom-up change.

    While the bottom-up change theories you speak of in this post are more profound than that of a social movement, I can't help but think about socio political movements after the night I spent. Which leads me to the thought that when one is struggling to make ends meet or distracted frequently by the intrusion of unexpected traumas or when one's energy supply is deminishing due illness or age, organizing big movements for change is not likely to be ones activity of choice.